The backwaters of Kuttanad are for most part of the year serene and every so often a gentle breeze will sooth the weary traveller’s brow as the tide softly laps a boat’s hull. The monsoon is a season for revival as the rivers and streams are replenished and the landscape is one gigantic green patchwork quilt resplendent with luminous silver tracery. In August, when the dark mottled grey canopy overhead begins to lighten, placid waterways transform into frenzied arenas, staging the famous snake boat races of Kerala.
Legend has it that over four hundred years ago, Devanarayana, a ruler of Chembakacherry in Kuttanad, was defeated in battle by a rival’s swifter boats. He decided to take recourse to ancient texts for guidance on how to build swifter craft and avenge his defeat. Devanarayana ordered his boat builders to design boats in accordance with specifications stated the Sthapathya Veda, an ancient treatise on boat building.
Snake boats, even today, are built of wood procured from the ‘Anjili’ tree (Artocarpus Hirsutus), a tropical evergreen species, and their dimensions usually vary from 100 to 138 feet in length. A boat’s hull is assembled from planks measuring precisely 83 feet in length and six inches in width. To reduce drag and optimize speed, the boat’s surfaces are coated with a mixture of fish oil, the ash of coconut shells, and eggs. With a tapering stern and a bow that resembles a snake’s raised hood, these boats assume their name in the vernacular ‘Chundan Vallam’ (snake boat) and are fascinating examples of indigenous boat architecture in Kerala.
The grace and speed of these boats as they slice through the waters propelled by sinew, song and rhythm, is an enthralling spectacle for most travellers that watch these races at close quarters. Participation in these races, held annually, and victories are a matter of great collective joy and pride among people in the Kuttanad area. Usually a boat is the property of a village and maintained by its carpenters. Often they are objects of veneration as well. Only men folk are allowed to touch the boat and in respect they are expected to be barefooted when they approach the boat or touch it.
Starting a race, snake boats, at times embellished with engraved graphic motifs, are manned by a team of oarsmen led by a village leader positioned at the highest point on the prow. Three principal paddlers control the direction of the boat with a 12-foot-long (3.7 m) main rudder-oar (Adanayampu). Sitting two to a row along the length of the boat, 64 oarsmen and on occasion 128 paddlers, row in unison to the rousing rhythms of a ‘boat song’(Vanchipattu) sung by 25 singers seated in a row at the middle of the boat, between the paddlers, near the boat’s stern. Each team sings its own distinctive song. Nearer to its prow, eight cantors stand on a slightly raised platform leading the boat’s song, representing ‘Ashtadikpalakas’ (Divine Guardians of Eight Directions).
Quite possibly the largest team sport in the world, the ‘Chundan Vallamkali’ or snake boat races are of two types. One, competitive like the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the other, a social ritual, like the Aranmula Boat Race. While the competitive races are a blend of fun, merriment and passionate competition, the latter is suffused with elaborate rituals, devotion and prayer.
Do look up this year’s schedule for snake boat races, they are undoubtedly one of Kerala’s singular attractions at this time of the year. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is conducted on the Punnamda Lake, near Alappuzha, on the 11th August this year. A veritable sea of humanity will throng the Punnamada lakefront with an estimated 200,000 people expected to attend. Book a cruise now on board a Xandari Riverscapes luxury houseboat and we will ensure that our guests enjoy exclusive vantage points and views of a memorable spectacle.